Unlocking the ‘Interlok’ issue
By BARADAN KUPPUSAMY
A new Form Five literature novel has kicked up a storm among certain quarters in the Indian community due to an offensive term, but the controversy can be diffused if the context of its use is properly explained.
THE novel Interlok by national laureate Datuk Abdullah Hussain that is compulsory reading for Form Five literature should be read, not banned or burnt just because some Indian leaders feel insulted by the mention of the caste system.
Several individuals and Indian organisations are protesting and want the novel banned simply because in one paragraph on page 211, the wordskasta pariah or pariah caste are mentioned in the context of how the Tamils were recruited from various parts of South India and how they were packed into crowded ships and suffered long and dangerous journeys to arrive in this country.
The context of the paragraph is how the British masters brought the Tamils, mostly from the lower echelons of the Hindu caste system, to work and clear the jungles and start rubber plantations and later work the trees and produce the wealth for the colonialists.
The 418-page novel tells in a simple, easily read and engaging style the historical story of how our multi-cultural society came about with the beginning of colonial society and the arrival of Indians and Chinese labourers.
The novel should be read by all Malaysians, not just as a literature tool in Form Five, because in a nutshell, it tells the story of Malaysia and how the nation was born through the eyes of three main characters – Seman, Chin Huat and Maniam - and their families.
The story narrates the experiences of all three, their hopes and fears and how they come together and link or interlock in the final chapter, titled appropriately Interlok, which is also the title of the book.
In the contested political landscape today, Interlok is a must read for all Malaysians because it reminds us of the different strands that started in isolation to fit a colonial need but later their descendants came together as a struggling nation.
The novel is hard and tough where it has to be. It is a period novel and tries to tell the Malaysia story as it happened in a gentle and unassuming manner and with great respect to the people who left behind their loved ones and journeyed across the sea to a new land to seek their fortunes.
It does not seek to mock or ridicule any race – Malay, Chinese or Indian – but says it as it was a century and a half ago.
Hussain says although the Indian pioneers came from different parts of South India and were from different ethnic groups and were crowded like goats and sheep into the ships, they could get along because most could speak Tamil, the key Dravidian language.
He said they could find comfort in each other because they shared the same misery and dreamt the same dreams of making it in a new, unfamiliar land.
Besides, the author says in passing, most of the people on the ship were from the same kasta pariah and therefore did not fear being defiled as would have been the case in India a century ago, where intermingling between the lower and upper castes was prohibited by social norms and practices.
Hussain is honest and sincere in giving the complete picture, as best as he can, about how Indians and others arrived and their experiences. He should not be faulted for it.
The word “pariah”, from the Tamil word paraiyar or drummer, denotes the so-called lower groupings in the Hindu caste system that is the bane of a classless and egalitarian society in India and elsewhere where Indians have migrated and settled down.
Sometimes called dalit in India or nammavar among Tamils, they have suffered centuries of oppression and humiliation as untouchables and still do, but not as severely as in the past. That’s one reason why some take exception to the word because it still hurts – to hear it, read it and witness the discrimination.
Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijan or Children of God in an attempt to turn the tables on the upper caste that controlled the politics and economy of the country.
The word “pariah” originally used against a group of oppressed people in India has entered the world’s lexicon and is frequently used for many, from songs, to people, to scientists with outlandish theories and to even mathematicians.
For many reasons, the caste system, an evil system of social structuring, has survived concerted attempts to eradicate it.
The Education Ministry has set up a committee to “study” the single, offending paragraph where the word “pariah” appears.
It is not necessary to remove the paragraph because if read in the context it is written, it explains that although the pioneers had a tough life and risked death, they could find comfort in a shared misery and a shared hope, a common Tamil language and a shared origin from South India, which also includes a shared kasta.
If this context is sufficiently explained to students, teachers and the reading public, including Indian politicians, there is no issue in usingInterlok as Form Five literature reading.